Backfield committee -- not if coach can help

First-year Oakland Raiders head coach Norv Turner's philosophy on the running game makes sense but will he be able to employ it?

Turner's offensive way of thinking is more in line with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis – rely on the power running attack and couple that with the threat of the vertical passing game. In a perfect world, Turner wants one running back to carry the load but is one man going to do it for Oakland? That philosophy might be tested.

Turner has been either a head coach or offensive coordinator for every season since 1985 and his history plainly states his desire to rely on one guy to carry the load. Look no further than Eric Dickerson with the then-Los Angeles Rams, Emmitt Smith for Dallas, Stephen Davis for Washington LaDainian Tomlinson for San Diego and Ricky Williams for Miami. There have been only four of those seasons that a Turner has had a leading rusher tally fewer than 288 carries and fail to produce a 1,000-yard season.

The 1990 Rams featured Cleveland Gary, who tallied 204 carries for 808 yards. Gary, however, was fumble-prone and that team was 6-10. The 1994 Redskins had Ricky Ervins as its leading rusher with 650 yards on 185 carries. That was Turner's first season as the head coach and Ervins clearly was not the answer. The 1997 and 1998 Washington teams had Terry Allen lead the way in rushing with both seasons being filled with injuries. In 1997, Allen carried 210 times for 724 yards while he produced 148 carries for 700 yards in 1998.

As for Turner's current team, Tyrone Wheatley, Justin Fargas and newly acquired Amos Zereoue (Pittsburgh) and Troy Hambrick (Dallas) are all vying to be the lead horse. Wheatley, however, figures to be the favorite to replace Charlie Garner, who left via free agency to Tampa Bay.

Wheatley put up a solid second half showing last year, particularly in the second half. You could argue that Wheatley was the Raiders offensive MVP. Wheatley carried the ball 159 times for 678 yards and four touchdowns. The only downside about Wheatley is that at age 32 he is long on mileage. Maybe, not like say, an Eddie George but it would take a stellar effort to approach his 2000 season (when he rushed for 1,046 yards on 232 carries – both career highs). Plus, he has yet to show he can make through the season unscathed.

Behind Wheatley is Fargas, who is fast but injury-prone. Zereoue was a nice change of pace for Jerome Bettis but his best season in 2002 consisted of 193 carries for 762 yards. Hambrick carried 275 times last year in Dallas but could only total 972 yards, good for a 3.3 yards per carry average.


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